This Academic Life
  Teacheable moment
When I am leading a discussion, I usually have something of a hands-off policy, in that I generally allow the students to go wherever they want to go. I intervene and press, but in a more or less inductive fashion -- I let the overall dynamic of the space flow where it wants to flow, and look for openings and spaces to leap into. Teaching in a technologically enabled classroom adds another dimension, in that I literally have the whole InterNet available to use for illustration -- and in my particular techno-classroom, the students all have wireless 'Net access via computers which I can very easily link to the room display system. So we will be chatting and arguing along, and someone will find an interesting website related (even if only tangentially) to the topic, which I can subsequently toss up on the screen for everyone to examine.

This makes for a very dynamic classroom environment, since I have no idea where things are going before they go there. As a result, almost anything can become an example, depending on how we as a group end up dealing with it. Today we used a comment one student made about another student being an "overachiever" -- and having been "born that way" -- as a wedge to get into issues about essentialism, identity, and whether truth was purely a matter of consensus or needed to be grounded on something beyond consensus. (Okay, this was one example among others, but it was a major part of the discussion.)

One of the potential drawbacks to doing it this way is that I don't have time to think out particular examples very far before I use them. Something comes up, and I react to it: teaching as hitting, as I have written elsewhere. See a pitch, go with the pitch -- don't try to do something complicated with it, but just go with it. Today an example raised its head and I swung at it instinctively: the students were discussing "popular consensus" about the use of military force, and someone raised the issue of scholarly consensus versus popular consensus. So I pulled up Scholars for A Sensible Foreign Policy, and we had an interesting discussion about a) the lack of press coverage for this in the US media versus the massive coverage in the rest of the world; and b) the difference between public reasoning and academic reasoning about issues like this, and whether the public should trust "experts" or not. Fascinating conversation.

Now, the problem -- or potential problem, I'm not sure yet -- is that I am a signatory of the letter. And if the students poke around on the site they'll find out that I am involved more heavily than just as another signatory. The issue that this raises is that I have both supporters and critics of the Iraq war in the class, and showing them the site puts me on record as taking a specific stand on the issue. After class I became a little worried about the appearance of having compromised my detachment, especially when one of my students asked me about it -- and then said that she'd googled me and discovered that I was all over the place. which I am -- well, not all over the place, but when you google me some stuff comes up, publications, etc.

It was easier to be a blank slate in the classroom when I had no publications. Then, people would ask me my opinion on something and I'd just defer. And I still do that, but they can sometimes find my stance on certain issues out there on the 'Net. I don't think that this compromises my detachment, but I am a little concerned about the appearance of having done so. It might make my job a little harder if students started saying and doing things because they thought that I'd agree with them, given my published stances on some things.

Fortunately, I'm a theorist, so most of what I publish isn't as directly relevant to contemporary political issues as it might be. And I can still defer such questions. In fact, if anyone asks, I can morph it into a discussion about scholarly detachment and classroom conduct, and ask the students why they think that my having opinions should matter. Yet another teachable moment. So it makes things a little more complicated, but hopefully doesn't present an insurmountable obstacle. I have to be able to teach while I am in print on certain subjects, after all…I just hope that students don't start freaking out if they think that I disagree with them on some political matter.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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